The stakes are always high for an FA Cup final. But when Arsenal face Hull City, they may be even higher.
For Arsenal, the chance to break a trophy-less streak dating back to their 2005 FA Cup victory over Manchester United is a huge opportunity. The lack of silverware over the years has come to define this portion of Arsene Wenger's tenure as manager and has left the proud Gunners a bit red in the face.
Meanwhile, Hull City have reached their first FA Cup final, meaning the team has an opportunity to earn a bit of silverware that generally stays well beyond their grasp.
This year, the FA Cup final has been given its own date on the schedule, a week after the Premier League season concludes. It has all the makings of a very memorable date for one of these two sides.
When: Saturday, May 17
Where: Wembley Stadium
How They Got Here
Arsenal survived by the skin of their teeth, ultimately beating Wigan in penalties, 4-2, in a game that ended after 120 minutes even at a goal apiece. Surely, the game was a whirlwind of emotions for Per Mertesacker, who was the main culprit in Wigan's first goal, as he committed a foul in the box that set up Jordi Gomez's go-ahead tally from the spot after an hour.
But the tall German redeemed himself, equalising in the 82nd minute.
The sides were a bit cagey in extra time, but Lukasz Fabianski was the hero in penalties, saving Wigan's first two attempts and opening the door for the Gunners to advance. It was shaky, at times lethargic, and ultimately relieving for Arsenal.
Things were a bit more relaxed for Hull City. Though they twice found themselves trailing League One's Sheffield United and went into the half down 2-1, they exploded in the second half and went on to win, 5-3.
Hull scored three straight goals in the first 22 minutes of the second half, seemingly putting the game to bed. Jamie Murphy made things interesting in the 90th minute, cutting the deficit to one for Sheffield, but David Meyler left no doubt three minutes later, bringing the lead back to two for Hull on a breakaway goal and sending them into the final.
Both of these teams will likely be relieved this game comes after the Premier League season ends. The Gunners are embroiled in a top-four battle, currently in fifth place and two points behind Everton. After the match, Wenger told Paul Wilson of The Guardian he hoped this result would carry over to the Premier League campaign:
We have a target now for the end of the season, something to look forward to in the FA Cup final, but in the meantime we can concentrate on the league. Hopefully this success in the Cup can give us a lift in our remaining league fixtures.
Waiting a month to play the final may also help Arsenal return to health in time to end their trophy drought. Aaron Ramsey has just returned to fitness, and by the final the Gunners should have Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and Laurent Koscielny ready to go.
Remember, when Arsenal were at full health they spent much of the season atop the Premier League table. If they are completely healthy against Hull—with the exception of Theo Walcott, of course, who is out of action well through the World Cup—they will be heavy favorites.
Hull City, meanwhile, appear to be clear of the relegation zone, as they are six points clear of 18th Fulham and have a game in hand. But matches against Arsenal (next Sunday), Manchester United and Everton remain, so Hull could be in for some choppy sailing before their season closes.
The matchup between the teams on April 20 should be a nice little preview of the FA Cup final. Arsenal won the first meeting between these teams, 2-0 on December 4, an important result to consider, given that the Gunners will probably bring a bigger contingency of fans with them to Wembley.
Also important to consider is that Arsenal have been heavily favored in an FA Cup final before and disappointed. After all, the Gunners were supposed to brush aside Birmingham City in the 2011 final of this tournament. Instead, they lost 2-1.
Those sort of results have made the Gunners the butt of plenty of trophy-related jokes over the years. Ed Malyon of the Mirror joined in the fun after Hull reached the final:
So Hull qualified for Europe today?— Ed Malyon (@eaamalyon) April 13, 2014
The Gunners will be hoping the joke isn't on them once again this year.
The fact that Arsenal should have all hands on deck (barring any other injuries until the game is played) is huge for them. The concern, of course, is that the weight of the trophy drought will weigh heavily on their shoulders. They'll hope relative newcomers like Ozil or Santi Cazorla don't feel the pressure so acutely and lead the Gunners to victory.
Which team wins?
Hull City will give them a game, but the talent disparity in this contest is pretty wide. And if Arsenal are as lethargic and tentative as they often were against Wigan, Hull will probably earn the upset. But it's time for the trophy drought to end, and the fact that Arsenal will have a week to prepare for the match plays in their favor.
The Gunners win, 2-1.